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Old Worries, Little Gain in Visit of North Korean PM, Observers Say

The visit of North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong Il Thursday, while diplomatically sound, is unlikely to yield much politically or economically, observers said.

Kim, who is not related to the "supreme leader," Kim Jong Il, is expected to sign several trade agreements that will strengthen economic ties between the two countries.

The visit will also signify a diplomatic gain for Cambodia, said Thun Saray, director of the rights group Adhoc, though there may better gains through stronger diplomacy with more prosperous South Korea.

"For ordinary people, they usually criticize [the government], saying that it seems that our country likes to go for countries that are rogue countries in the world," he said. "For me, I think that having a relationship with South Korea would bring more benefits."

While North Korea's status as an international pariah might be a concern for some, US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said any kind of normalized relations between North Korea and other countries tend to be good.

"It's a positive step for [North] Korea to be reaching out to other countries in Asia, and more normal relationships with other countries within the international community," Daigle said.

Kim Yong Il's four-day visit will likely yield agreements on bilateral investment and shipping, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong has said.

That is likely to raise a specter of worse times, when the maritime relationship between made international headlines.

In June 2002, the French Navy captured a North Korean ship flying a Cambodian "flag of convenience" and carrying a huge shipment of cocaine. In December that year, a similarly registered North Korean ship carrying missiles, warheads and tanks was caught crossing the Arabian Sea.

During that time, Kim Yong Il, the man expected in Cambodia Thursday, was minister for land and marine transport, the Asia Times reported Tuesday.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, a former economic minister, said Cambodia's traditional friendship with North Korea is unlikely to yield economic or political benefits.

"Our leader always continues old routines, relationships with communist countries," he said. "But for our interests, the interest of the Cambodian people, it is not necessary to strengthen the friendship with North Korea more than necessary."

Cambodia's relationship with North Korea stems from former king Norodom Shihanouk's friendship with the deceased "eternal president" of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. Sihanouk still maintains a palace in Pyongyang, and his bodyguards, a gift from Kim, are all North Korean.

Kim Yong Il is expected to stay for four days, paying visits to Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top government leaders, as well as trade officials and Sihanouk.